The settling in of the Modi government in India, and installation of a unity set up in Afghanistan, represents the beginning of a new phase of politics for Pakistan and the region. However, this is just one dimension of the dramatic change that presently engulfs the region and beyond.
Despite what is commonly believed, the future of US-Pakistan relations will be determined by the direction of not only the US-China ties, but also by the degree of US-India security cooperation related to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Iran is another significant factor of this regional flux. The P5+1 negotiations with the nation are continuing and are likely to be extended beyond the November deadline. The delay in securing a permanent deal is not necessarily bad; it gives western powers the time to leverage Iran’s nuclear ambition and secure enhanced cooperation from the Sunni Arab states against extremists.
On the other hand, as the pivot strategy gains momentum and India increases its economic and security cooperation with the pacific powers of Japan, South Korea and Australia, US-China ties are likely to get tense. Then there is the matter of American-Russian ties that have been greatly impacted by the events of Ukraine. If the Russians will continue to play ball over Syria, Iran, and confronting the extremists, is likely to be conditioned on the treatment they get over the affairs of Europe.
At the same time, the reach of extremism continues to expand, with fission and fusion amongst various groups of the Middle East and South and Central Asia. This should be especially worrisome for Pakistan, been declared the epicenter of terror. In this context the evolution of western policies in the Middle East provides a sampling of what to expect in the South Asia region.
The question is how will these changes impact the US-Pakistan relations.
Despite what is commonly believed, the future of US-Pakistan relations will be determined by the direction of not only the US-China ties, but also by the degree of US-India security cooperation related to Pakistan and Afghanistan. In this connection, tensions can escalate on the LAC, LOC, and the Durand Line.
While the regional cooperation envisioned under the energy and economic corridors has a lot to offer, the present direction of the Arab world imply it is the security concerns related to the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and its interplay with extremism and non-state actors that are domineering
Evolving Policy Towards Middle East
In the Middle East, the Syrian WMDs (chemical weapons) were perceived as the preeminent security threat, as was in the case of Saddam Hussein. The fear was that they could have potentially fallen in the hands of extremists or a rogue leader, who may have decided to use them against Israeli or western targets. The negotiations with Iran are also premised on a similar security threat. In the case of Syria, it was the Russians that facilitated reaching a deal on dismantling its chemical weapons arsenal.
This fear is accompanied by efforts to maintain a moderate order. Speaking at the Washington Institute, US Deputy Secretary of State William Burn stated on September 29 that protecting and shaping a moderate order in the Middle East is also a policy goal. When asked about the role the Russians are playing on P5+1 negotiations with Iran, Secretary Burn commented that Russia has pursued a constructive role in these talks and have conveyed that a nuclear Iran is not in its interest either.
Similarly, he hinted that perhaps the greatest limitation to the leadership change in Syria is from Russia, which continues to see its role in the Middle East in a zero-sum fashion. On the other hand, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger recently commented that Iran represents a greater threat than IS. And this logic, with the inclusion of China in the calculus, can also be extrapolated on the situation of South Asia.
What this Means for South Asia
While the Middle East policy is geared foremost towards preventing WMDs from falling in the hands of extremists, this urgency is even direr in the context of South Asia, where non-state actors could potentially acquire a WMD and use it against India. A scenario similar to the one that played out in Karachi recently when an Al Qaeda’s linked elements attempted to hijack the warship PNS Zulfiqar.
At this juncture of the war against extremists, attempting to maintain and shape a ‘moderate order’ is fraught with risks. Especially when there is little progress to show on finding political solutions to long simmering hot spots.
As pointed out previously by PoliTact, religious conservatism and political polarization in many of the terror-inflicted societies have been growing over the years and now is at a tipping point. It would be extremely difficult to maintain a moderate order, and the more it is attempted, the chaos is likely to increase. Egypt is a case in point. This emphasis is likely to make the South Asian theater of operation as hot as the Middle East as events unfold.
While Pakistan still has an influential role when it comes to the Afghan reconciliation, Indian concerns and the threat from loose nukes are likely to take precedence. Speaking at the Brooking Institutions on October 7, former Indian national security adviser Shivshankar Menon noted that the West is approaching the problem of IS and extremism primarily militarily, while a political track is also needed. It is yet to be seen if the new Indian government shares this premise towards Afghan reconciliation and especially Kashmir.
On the other hand, failure in reaching a breakthrough with Iran despite its assistance in Iraq and Syria to confront the IS threat, would imply: nationalist (Kurds) and moderate proxies (Free Syrian Army) are preferable over religiously oriented ones (Hezbollah) that are under state influence. And once the Sunni non-state actors that are not under any clear state influence, represented by AQ and IS, are dealt with, the ones under state influence would also be targeted. And this by default will lead to a peace deal between the Israelis and the Arabs.
Alternatively, if a deal is reached with Iran that is acceptable to Israel, it might suggest that non-state actors that are under state influence, whether Shia or Sunni, have a role to play in preserving the world order.
As the emphasis of fighting extremists’ increases, and in absence of any political solution to longstanding conflicts, maintaining and shaping a moderate order will become more and more a tenuous ordeal. And this in turn will only worsen western anxiety regarding loose WMDs falling in the hands of religious zealots. These are the prerogatives that are likely to shape the future direction of US-Pakistan relations more than anything else.